INKPOT#57 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: RACHMANINOV Piano Concertos Nos.2 & 3. Wild/RPO/Horenstein (Chandos)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
by Isaak Koh
The story of the genesis of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is almost as famous as Beethoven’s crossing-out of the original dedication of the “Eroica” Symphony. After a disastrous premiere of his First Symphony by a supposedly drunk Glazunov in 1897, young Sergei suffered a nervous breakdown. Nursed back to health by psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninov composed his C minor concerto and dedicated the work to Dr. Dahl.
The composition was a smashing success from its first public performance and cemented Sergei’s reputation as a mature composer. It also marked a period of sustained musical creativity for the Russian, in which he composed two operas and his Second Symphony. Rachmaninov also completed his Third Piano Concerto in 1909, which had its premiere in New York City during his United States tour.
The Second Piano Concerto is a beautiful piece of music, full of Romantic passion and sublime melody. Its extreme emotional charge has resulted in pianists and conductors over-sentimentalising the work, subverting it into a weepy paean of lost love (or something to that effect). Earl Wild and Jascha Horenstein make none of those mistakes. The arch-like opening piano chords of the concerto bring to mind the sound of bells tolling, a memento mori, which lead to the portentous initial theme, swept through powerfully by the orchestra. Wild never indulges in the sentimental facet of the work, playing with appropriate restraint.
The recording is warm, which emphasises the rich, luxurious sound of the orchestra. However, the balance of the recording is tipped in favour of the soloist, which is appropriate given the virtuso nature of the concerto. As a result, Wild’s brilliant technique is vividly captured by the microphones. In contrast, the orchestra is made to seem small and distant at times. This robs the orchestra of sonic impact at climatic moments. Even during loud passages, the piano can be heard clearly through the orchestra.
Wild’s keyboard prowess is a delight to listen to. He sharply articulates the astoundingly numerous notes at the closing section of the first movement. He does, to these ears, rush through the memorable return section before this, not giving enough emphatic weight to these dramatic chords — other pianists seem to make more of this.
In the deeply moving second movement, the musicians never succumb to the temptation to linger over the notes. Indeed, it is an actively flowing movement, never languid. The sublime questioning main theme is made expressive without being cloy. The closing section of the second movement is positive and heart-warming, bring hope, like the breaking of dawn at the end of deepest night.
The third movement is played with moderate speed, allowing for clear articulation of the notes, making it a wonder to hear. Wild plays with urgency without sacrificing clarity, while able to inject the appropriate power at the repeat of the opening theme. The soloist and the conductor has together fashioned a strong and deeply moving rendition of the concerto, constantly keeping the masterplan in view, never wallowing in sentimentality that plagues so many other recordings of the work.
Although the Second Concerto is more accessible to the novice and popular to the public, the Third Piano Concerto is arguably the accomplished work. Wild takes the opening theme briskly, its walking rhythm recalling the mood of the questioning theme of the second movement of the Second Concerto. The overall atmosphere of the first movement is tentative, although there are moments of pure tenderness during the second subject. The only caveat here is the quirky cadenza where Wild seems to lose control slightly and play with a jerky rhythm. The movement ends with a lovely closing section, beautifully drawn out by the orchestra.
Left: Rachmaninov at the piano – painting by Boris Chaliapin.
The Third Concerto has always suggested to me a program of a journey from deep-seated emotional turmoil to conclusive joy. The uncertain first movement gives way to a contemplative second movement, one that repeatedly gives the impression of sublime peace. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic play marvellously here, painting the serenity most convincingly. In the second section of the movement, the mood changes rapidly to one of energy. Wild’s articulation is again breath-taking.
The third movement becomes a tour-de-force for the pianist. The confident mood of the movement is potently conveyed by Wild, his touch ever so precise here. There is no doubt that we are in the hands of a master. The orchestra is also a major contributor, the precision of the full chords blowing all reservations away. The Concerto seems to proceed inevitably to an explosion of unadulterated joy, a moral victory over all odds, as the soaring strings of the finale lead to the combined charge of the soloist and the orchestra to a dramatic finish. This is undeniably a life-affirming work, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s Fifth.
Recorded in 1966, the sound is very good. This CD garners an enthusiastic recommendation from this reviewer. The rendition of the Second can be placed alongside the Richter/Wislocki (DG) and Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca), while the Third is definitely in the class of Horowitz/Reiner and Janis/Munch (both RCA). Admirerers of both work need not hesitate to purchase a copy, even if you already have these works in your collection. For newcomers, this is a fine introduction to these masterpieces.
Isaak Koh has faithfully followed the World Cup, and unfaithfully accidently missed Millenium. What about a “Balls” Symphony?
235: 12.7.98 Isaak Koh